Opposition to the death penalty

Amy Knop-Narbutis

Months ago, in the first student debate between Villanova’s College Democrats and College Republicans, a Democratic panelist asked the Republicans to reconcile their pro-life platform with Bush’s support of the death penalty. In response, a Republican speaker exclaimed, “We care about life … but only innocent life.”

This claim is faulty on many levels: first, it assumes that the death penalty is only inflicted upon the guilty. Since 1973, over 100 Americans have been released from death row with evidence proving their innocence.

This means that since 1973, at least 100 innocent Americans have been unjustly sentenced to death. On average, these innocent inmates suffered through nine years in jail, anticipating their death, before being exonerated. Because our justice system is inherently fallible, we can never guarantee that we will not execute the innocent alongside with the guilty.

In a speech given in 2002 entitled “101 Reasons to Abandon the Death Penalty,” Archbishop McCarrick explained, “The report that at least 100 people have now been found to be innocent of the crimes that put them on death row are 100 reasons to turn away from capital punishment. The 101st reason is [that] reliance on the death penalty diminishes all of us, increases disrespect for human life, and offers the tragic illusion that we can teach that killing is wrong by killing.”

Secondly, the claim inaccurately portrays what it means to be “pro-life.” Being pro-life is about protecting all human life, innocent and guilty alike. In 1999, Pope John Paul II gave a truly pro-life response to the death penalty: “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to life is inalienable, it is accorded to everyone regardless of religion, race, gender, age, or criminal status.

Many people instead of protecting life, seek humane manners of execution. While methods such as lethal injections may result in less physical suffering, the victim still suffers from the psychological trauma of anticipating his or her death from the day of the sentence to the day of the execution.

Differentiating between forms of killing people is a misguided effort on the part of the government and the public to justify our actions and soothe our consciences.

When a state executes a murderer, it is merely mirroring the murderer’s violence against his or her victim. Some argue that it is an effective way to deter murder, yet in 1996, the United Nations concluded that “Research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming.”

Using the death penalty to deter murder is ineffective because people who commit violent crimes may do so under the influence of drugs, mental illnesses, or emotional outbreaks, which prevent them from rationally evaluating the consequences of their actions. A survey of the country’s top criminologists found that 84 percent did not believe that the death penalty deters murder. A 1995 poll of American police chiefs returned similar results: a majority of the chiefs believed that reducing drug and gun abuse, improving the economy and job market and hiring more police officers were more effective law enforcement tools than the death penalty.

The death penalty is not only a matter of immorality and ineffectiveness, it is also a matter of money. Consider the following statistics: in Texas, a death penalty case costs three times more than the imprisonment of a criminal in a high security jail cell for 40 years.

Florida could cut its budget by $51 million a year if it stopped enforcing the death penalty and instead put first-degree murderers in prison for life without parole. Capital punishment cases in Kansas are 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-capital cases. The majority of these extra costs occur during pre-trial and trial negotiations

There is also a high level of discrimination in our death penalty system. In a report for the American Bar Association, state reviews found that there was race of victim or race of defendant discrimination in 96 percent of cases.

Also, in a study done at the University of North Carolina, data showed that criminals who killed white victims were 3.5 times more likely to receive the death penalty. Another study in Philadelphia found that blacks received the death penalty 38 percent more often than all other races. But discrimination does not occur only on a racial level – it also occurs on an economic level. Ninety-five percent of all people sentenced to death cannot afford their own attorney. If a defendant can afford his or her own attorney, he or she is much less likely to receive the death penalty. Reflecting upon this discrepancy, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stated, “It is evident that the burden of capital punishment falls upon the poor, the ignorant and the underprivileged members of society.”

On a similar note, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remarked in 2001, “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty … I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court … in which the defendant was well represented at trial.”

George McFarland, who is currently on death row in Texas, had an attorney who slept through his trial. The judge who presided over the trial responded, “The Constitution says everyone’s entitled to the attorney of their choice. The Constitution doesn’t say the lawyer has to be awake.”

Yesterday, Pennsylvanian George Banks was scheduled to be executed. Today, Charles Walker of North Carolina faces the same fate. It is time for all of us to speak out against this injustice.

Even families of murder victims have gathered to fight the death penalty. Marie Deans, the founder of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, explains, “[W]e know that revenge is not the answer.

The answer lies in reducing violence, not causing more death. The answer lies in supporting those who grieve for their lost loved ones, not creating more grieving families. It is time we break the cycle of violence.

To those who say society must take a life for a life, we say: “not in our name.”